Students at Frankford Friends School know what it means to be innovative, especially in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
These areas of study, coined as STEM, are the new focuses of Frankford Friends’ proposed NEST center, an area on the school’s campus that will allow students to experiment with these subjects through a Media Studio, an Innovation Workshop and a Nature Learning Lab. The project received sponsorships from Dietz & Watson, the Holman Auto Group, City Tap House and Frankford company, Falcon Express.
By 2018, The U.S. Department of Commerce Economics predicts that STEM careers will be some of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, projected to grow by 17 percent since 2008. However, it is hard to say whether the U.S. will be in a STEM crisis or a STEM surplus by this time.
According to data from the National Math and Science Initiative, 44 percent of 2013 high school graduates were prepared for college-level math courses, and only 36 percent of them were also prepared for ones in science. Of 15 major study categories, according to the data, less than 20 percent of students choose a STEM path.
Though STEM is mainly associated with careers in the sciences, Frankford Friends’ head of school, Kathryn Cook, believes that a well-rounded STEM curriculum will prepare students for any job.
“Students have a lot of different ways to solve a problem,” Cook said. “They don’t have to do it in one particular way and they don’t have to necessary pursue a STEM career. But by going through this curriculum, they can find out what they’re good at.”
Every Frankford Friends student participates in STEM courses from pre-K to eighth grade. Activities vary for different classes each day.
STEM teacher, Stephen Heuer, recently did a project involving LED lights, wires and play dough called a “squishy circuit.” The students combined the material together to discover how a circuit functions, forming creative objects out of play dough like fruits and vegetables.
“I got the idea from a PBS Ted Talk ,” Heuer said. “It’s very simple material.”
Jennifer Murray, another STEM teacher at Frankford Friends also had her class use simple materials, like straws and masking tape, to complete a project called the “egg drop” (pictured above). The students worked in groups to make a sturdy shelter for an egg, which they dropped from a balcony in the school’s Quaker Meeting House to test if it would crack or not. Murray said projects related to motion and physics really engage the students.
“The kids have all of this technology around them but have no idea how it all hangs together,” Murray said. “So for them to start from the ground up is really valuable for the students.”
Students appear to enjoy the STEM program at Frankford Friends. Yusef Jamaladdin, whose favorite subject is math, said he learns a lot in his STEM class.
“We learn a lot about the different equations and variables,” Jamaladdin said. “We almost always work in groups, so we learn how to cooperate. We have to help each other out when building and finishing what we’re trying to do.”
Adeline Heal, a student who has attended Frankford Friends for eight years, said she enjoys science-themed activities in her class.
“I like doing labs and experiment-type things,” Heal said. “We get to do a lot while we’re still learning and staying on subject.”
NEST has received a lot of positive feedback from the parents of Frankford Friends’ students. Darree Palmer, who is one of them, raved about some of the new aspects of the center.
“The education will help her because she’ll have a lot of hands on things where she has to work through a process and come out with an end result,” Palmer said. “I think she’ll do really well in high school.”
Isha Khan, also a parent of a Frankford Friends student, said her child’s four years at the school has been great so far.
“We really like the school and the parents and we have Kathryn Cook,” Khan said. “We love her. She has brought so much energy and everything is disciplined. It’s a really good school.”
Here are photos from Murray’s “egg drop” activity.
STEM education is a priority at other Philadelphia schools too
The Frankford Friends School is not the only institution that values STEM education. The Germantown Friends School, another co-ed private Quaker school located on West Coulter Street, built its Sustainable Urban Science Center in 2009. The center serves as a STEM teaching school with a focus on sustainability and how it relates to an urban environment.
“I really enjoy how this building itself can be a teacher,” said Rita Goldman, Germantown Friends Associate Head of School.
Goldman said the building features resources, like the rain gardens that circle 360 degrees around the building to reduce storm water run off, a geothermal heating and cooling system and a skylight atrium with low operable windows to make use of solar energy. She added that the school has growing robotics and computer science programs, which are housed in the center.
“Students have been doubling up on science courses since the center has been built,” Goldman said. “There was even a recent initiative by the lower school to collect plastic bottles. Our students have incredible voices.”
Genevieve Nelson, an environmental science teacher in Germantown Friends’ science department said the green design of the building has helped students to understand the finite nature of resources.
“The environmental science students get a real hands on experience,” she said. “Especially with things like the rain gardens.”
Frankford Friends’ NEST will have similar features to Germantown Friends science center, like in its Nature Learning Lab, where students can freely investigate, explore and observe their world around them through engagement with natural materials, native plants, local animals, rocks and soils, water and engineering apparatus.
Cook said NEST’s Innovation Workshop and Media Studio are also designed to foster hands-on experimentation. She described that the Innovation Workshop will allow students to build skills in communication, teamwork, innovation, and leadership through investigative practices.
The Media Studio, she said, will expand students understanding of the role technologies can play in 21st century communication, using photography, audio and video presentations, digital designs, animation, and other new media. Cook said students will continue working collaboratively in NEST activities.
“Quakers are very big on community,” she said. “So, collaboration is a really important piece of the education that also relates to STEM careers.”
Cook also wants the NEST curriculum to give students a competitive edge when applying to Philadelphia high schools after Frankford Friends. This is an aspect that Germantown Friends’ STEM program already has. One of the school’s students, for example, was honored at Capitol Hill in March for winning Pennsylvania’s Congressional App Challenge for Pennsylvania’s Second District. The competition, posed to kids ages 13 and over, shed light on young, programming talent within a myriad of STEM fields.
Kenneth Finkel, a Temple University professor whose children attended Germantown Friends from 7th to 12th grade, said the school’s Quaker education philosophy enables students to flourish in subjects like STEM.
“Each Quaker school is different but they tend to have in common is a shared value of teaching kids to learn to love to learn,” Finkel said. “It’s not about the grades so much as the process in a supportive, open environment.”
Deborra Pancoe, the associate director of the Quaker school support system, Philadelphia Friends Council on Education, emphasized that teachings of Quakerism are very much compatible with a STEM curriculum. She said the component of environmental stewardship, for example, is stressed in the religion.
“It relates to how we care for the interior world and the exterior world,” she said, “how we care for ourselves, our environment, our planet and how we can be good citizens.”
Quaker schools like Frankford Friends and Germantown Friends are not the only institutions making strides in their STEM curricula. Right in Frankford, Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School on Torresdale Avenue is home to students who have prospered in STEM based competitions.
One of its students placed first in the George Washington Carver Science Fair and in February, five tenth graders from the school won first prize in the regional portion of the 2016 Governor’s STEM competition.
However, not all school STEM education systems thrive, particularly ones in the public Philadelphia School District. STEMcityPHL, a civic campaign to promote STEM education opportunities, asserts that District students in grades three through eight have below 50 percent proficiency rates in mathematics.
“We really need to make STEM programs a public asset,” said Phil Brooks, the program manager of the campaign’s STEM initiatives.
Brooks added that STEMcityPHL has achieved some success so far in its US2020PHL mentoring program. The program developed from the US2020 White House call to present large scale and innovative solutions to the STEM education crisis by the year 2020. Brooks said US2020PHL reaches out to STEM geared companies in Philadelphia and partners them with Philadelphia schools to mentor students.
STEMcityPHL has also designed the Mayor’s STEM Ambassador Initiative, which recognizes student excellence and achievement in STEM and provides assistance with post-secondary education. A maximum of 25 high school juniors from private, public or parochial schools in Philadelphia receive financial, professional and academic support each year from the program.
“Our work is important because it opens a lot of doors for students,” Brooks said. “The future will have jobs that are STEM focused, so they can have really solid employment if they get this education.”
Though Brooks said STEMcityPHL’s programs have only reached a few schools in Philadelphia, the campaign looks to expand to others, even in the Frankford area and in other parts of Northeast Philadelphia.
“Eventually we’d like to get out there,” he said. “We want to connect with schools that express interest to us because STEM education is so important.”
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– Text, images and video by Sienna Vance and Shannon Senour.